Early voting begins today in Texas, officially marking the home stretch of what has been an extraordinary election season — even in the Lone Star State.
On Nov. 8, Texans will finally find out what impact Donald Trump's presidential campaign has had on their reliably Republican state, where he is polling unusually close to Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Voters will also learn whether the bombastic billionaire has affected down-ballot Republicans, though there are very few in competitive races this election cycle in the Lone Star State.
Recent surveys suggest Trump is on track to beat Clinton in Texas by a much narrower margin than those of the the last two GOP nominees, who won by double digits. A CBS News poll released Sunday found Trump leading Clinton by only 3 percentage points in Texas, 46 percent to 43 percent.
Margins like that one have Texas Democrats encouraged that they can at least make gains further down the ballot. In Dallas County, for example, a number of Democratic challengers with real shots at winning are hoping Trump will help flip districts.
People "are telling us they are ready, they want to go vote," said Victoria Neave, who is taking on state Rep. Ken Sheets in an increasingly heated Dallas County race. "And Trump has a big role in that."
A Democratic presidential nominee has not carried Texas since Jimmy Carter in 1976, but Democrats are hopeful Trump can at least begin to reverse that trend. Texas Republicans, meanwhile, have increasingly sounded the alarm that Democrats could make serious inroads in the Lone Star State if GOP turnout slips in November.
"We can't count on Texas always being red," U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz said Thursday at an event in Denton County, one of the state's most Republican counties.
Cruz and other top Texas GOP officials crisscrossed the state last week for a series of get-out-the-vote events aimed at energizing fellow Republicans ahead of early voting. The events put on display the varying levels of enthusiasm Texas Republicans still hold toward their presidential nominee, even with fewer than three weeks until Election Day.
In Denton County, Cruz spoke for roughly 18 minutes, skewering Clinton as a serial liar but not making any mention of Trump, whom the Texas senator endorsed in September after a months-long holdout. Trump also was not a topic as Land Commissioner George P. Bush, the Texas GOP's Victory chairman, delivered brief remarks Tuesday in San Antonio, speaking in front of a large Trump campaign sign.
Instead of widely touting Trump, Texas Republicans have put a large emphasis on straight-ticket voting, hoping that the practice will insulate them from any Trump-related defections at the ballot box.
"I don’t care if you vote against Hillary Clinton or for Donald Trump, just vote straight R," Railroad Commission candidate Wayne Christian said at the Denton County event.
Trump's down-ballot effect is getting the most attention in Texas in the 23rd Congressional District, where U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio, is locked in a heated rematch with Pete Gallego, a Democrat from Alpine. Democrats have long hoped that Gallego will prevail due to turnout in a presidential year — which tends to favor Democrats — and Trump's toxicity in the sprawling district, which covers hundreds of miles of the Mexican border roughly between San Antonio and El Paso.
Beyond the races for president and CD-23, there is not much action on the Texas ballot. The only non-judicial statewide contest is for a seat on the Railroad Commission, which Christian, a former GOP state representative, is heavily favored to win in a state that has not elected a Democrat to such an office since 1994.
Farther down the ticket, very few members of the Texas Legislature — none in the Senate — are in competitive contests. Only a handful of GOP incumbents in the 150-member House are considered at risk of losing their seats, with the list including Reps. Sheets, Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie, John Lujan of San Antonio, Gilbert Peña of Pasadena, J.M. Lozano of Kingsville and Rick Galindo of San Antonio.
Many of those vulnerable Republicans have worked to keep the issue of Trump as far away from their races as possible. Sheets, who represents District 107 in eastern Dallas County, said the voters he talks to typically want to discuss issues that affect their daily lives, like securing the U.S.-Mexico border and strengthening the economy.
"The top of the ticket rarely comes up," said Sheets, who is not endorsing anyone for president, including Trump. "People are smart enough to segment who they are going to vote for."
The deadline to register to vote in Texas was Oct. 11. The state now has a record-breaking 15 million people registered to vote, though the big question come Election Day is how many will show up at the polls in a state that consistently ranks in the back of the pack nationally for voter turnout.
Early voting ends Nov. 4. Registered voters can check where to vote early on the secretary of state's website.
Brandon Formby contributed to this report.
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